Notes: Happy Mothers Day!!! This isn't a good part of the story when it comes to mothers, but at least it's another part! We're almost to the ball, ladies and gentlemen. Gird your loins!
Part Nine: La La Land
The hardest part of the whole business is getting hold of a suit, or pantaloons, or whatever the hell these boys wear. Asher knows better than to expect his stepmother to just offer up the right clothes, and he also knows there aren’t going to be any singing mice and flitting birds sewing him something, which is fine. Totally fine. One non-talking mouse is plenty, thank you very much. Besides, every bird he’s seen has looked like a colored cotton ball, like whoever had put this place together figures you aren’t going to be getting very close to them, so fuck the details.
Thinking too long in that direction leads to a shit ton of crazy, so Asher puts it aside and does his innumerable chores and waits for a moment where his stepmother is otherwise occupied so he can get into her room. She was married to his sort-of-dad, right? She should have men’s clothes in there somewhere, something nice enough to pass muster. All Asher needs is a chance. And, yeah, he needs for her not to blow up at him when the time comes to go, but that’s a bridge to cross later. First things first: getting in.
Except his stepmother is in her room all the time, except at dinner, and then he’s supposed to be serving her and her two little poisonous apples. He tries using laziness to his advantage and going extra slow with his chores in hopes that someone else will serve dinner, but all it gets him is a cuff on the ear from the cook (which stings like an absolute bitch) and an admonishment to go faster. Asher tries to cut out early too, but he gets called back. He tries to begin late, same issue, but again with the hitting.
Finally Asher resorts to causing some property damage. He isn’t proud, but the ball is tonightand he’s got to get this done. He decides on a fire. Everyone likes to look at a fire, and besides, everything flammable is on the side of the mansion that his stepmother doesn’t have a view of from her room, so she’ll have to leave to see it. There are two barns, one large, one small, and the granary as potential targets. Asher decides on the small barn, there are no animals there, it’s mostly used to house the carriage, and happily the carriage is gone right now too, being spruced up for the big night. Win-win.
Asher never has been a pyromaniac, but his older brothers were, and he paid attention. Their medium of choice was lighter fluid, but Asher goes with a thick smear of goose grease (that nasty gritty stuff in the pot that he couldn’t identify on his first day and still won’t eat, no matter how kind of okay it smells) on the back wall close to the floor. The wood is rotting, a little wet but this should get it going.
He sets the fire early, before breakfast, so most everyone is still asleep. People will be suspicious but no one will be able to prove anything. He readies the kindling, then lays the embers from the fire in the kitchen to it. They catch almost immediately, and Asher bolts out of there. He watches surreptitiously from the back door, pretending to be barely awake. Nothing at first. A little smoke after a while, nice, good start, but no one notices.
When the smell is so strong the air is saturated with it Asher is sure someone will say something, but no, the kitchen staff bustles around and the cook thrusts a bucket of scraps at him. “Pigs,” she grunts. Right. Asher goes out back and stops in the courtyard. There are flames shooting up the back wall now. If he doesn’t get this party started, the damn thing will burn down and no one will be the wiser. Okay then…
“FIRE!!!” he yells at the top of his lungs, then takes off around the corner so he won’t be called upon to help put it out. He needs this time.
There’s a scuffle in the kitchen, people darting and shouting and then the chorus is taken up. “Fire! Fire!” Excellent. Asher circles around to the front and looks in through one of the long windows, where he’s got a decent view of the stairs. The girls should be coming down any minute…
Envy is first. She always has to be the first to know anything, and she rockets down the staircase like it’s her ass that’s on fire instead of a barn. Pinky follows at a more sedate pace, rubbing at her eyes.
“C’mon, c’mon…” She has to be coming, this sort of thing has to make the grade for watchable entertainment. They have no TV here, a good fire should be like the Superbowl to these people.
Ah, there now, here she comes, stalking down the stairs like an angry wraith in a black nightgown, her hair frizzed out like wire. Asher has never seen her at anything less than her skeletal best, and it’s weird how uncomfortable seeing her in dishabille makes him. Like she’s really there, real, and of all of the people here, his stepmother is the one that Asher least wants to be real for some reason.
He slips inside and heads up the stairs fast. His little mouse buddy is bouncing against his stomach in the pouch, and he whispers a quiet apology to him for being rough, but timing is important now. He makes it to the third floor, last door on the right, and tries the handle. It opens, creaking, and he lets himself in fast.
The room smells musty, dank despite the fact that a maid is in there once a day to clean things. The bed is a canopy, its curtains drawn tightly shut. The furniture is dark, the walls are dark, the fabric is dark: this place is like a crypt. Asher half wonders if he pulls the curtain around the bed aside, what are the odds that he finds a coffin instead? He shakes his head and moves over to the wardrobe. The doors creak—naturally—as he opens it. Inside he finds layer upon layer of gowns. Asher paws through them, looking for something vaguely masculine without success. Shit. He can still hear the uproar through the window, so he’s got a little time…where else do people keep clothes? He tries the chest at the foot of the bed: all linens. The drawers on the vanity are too small to hold anything useful. In a fit of pique Asher throws back the curtain around the bed, needing to smack at something. And inside the bed he finds—
Oh. Oh, that’s kind of sick. There’s a mannequin in the bed, a life-sized straw man, and it’s wearing a blue satin suit The clothes are nice quality, Asher can tell, but the whole situation is just…just…is there even a word for this kink? There’s no mock genitalia that he can see, Asher doesn’t figure she’s using it for that, but lying in a tomb of a bed with a mock-up of your dead husband is not psychologically healthy. The doll is wearing rings on straw fingers, a medallion around it’s broomstick neck…and is that a real wig on its head? Definitely based on the real thing. Definitely disturbing. Definitely…
Definitely what he needs. Beggars can’t be choosers, and these are the only clothes he’s found. Asher strips them off the straw man and prays that his stepmother won’t crawl back in there for the rest of the day. Yeah, she’ll see him tonight, but again…gotta get there first. Asher leaves all the jewelry but grabs the shoes, figuring his string sandals won’t cut it, and hightails it out of there. Just as he emerges he hears the women of the household chatting animatedly on the main stairs, and he runs for the servant’s stairwell on the other side of the house and gets there just in time. He’s breathing hard, which is kind of gross ‘cause the clothes are just as foul smelling as the rest of that room, but he figures he can air them out.
He rolls them into a bundle and tucks it beneath his oversized tunic and gets outside without being seen, finds a likely tree not too far away and beat the fuck out of the fabric there, then hangs it over the lowest branches. Then he gets back to work.
The day is exhaustingly long, and by the time dinner is finished (served early for the ladies) and he’s done getting his daily allotment of abuse, there’s less than a half hour to get ready. Asher tries to excuse himself but the women hold on.
“You don’t look ready, piglet,” Envy says from where she sits, idly wrapping a ribbon around her finger. She’s wearing a green gown that for once makes her sit up straight instead of slouching, the corsets are drawn so tight. Unfortunately they’re not so tight that she can’t get enough air to keep speaking. “Such a shame.”
“The shame would be ours if he were to accompany us,” Pinky counters. Her hair is twice its normal size, and makes her doll-thin neck look like it could snap at any moment. Her pink gown looks like cotton candy strapped to a Barbie doll, poofy in weird places. Fashion, man.
His stepmother doesn’t say anything, but the cool look of disapproval on her face is infuriating. Like she didn’t know she was setting him up for an impossible task at the beginning.
“Actually, I can be ready in five minutes,” Asher tells them.
“Can you indeed?” his stepmother asks, one eyebrow arching elegantly.
“Do so, then. And if the clock makes you a liar, then you stay here.”
The clothes aren’t that far away and he took a few minutes to wash up earlier. He struggles into the suit, still musty-smelling for all that it had been baking in the sun since morning. Christ, there are ties everywhere, at his waist, his wrists, around his neck like a fucking noose. Whatever, he can tighten them in the carriage. He ties the ribbon with the wax seal around one wrist, then after a moment’s contemplation slides the mouse into one of the voluminous sleeves. It’s totally irrational, but he just doesn’t feel like he can leave the little guy behind. “You okay there, buddy?”
The mouse just blinks calmly, then rubs its face on his arm. “I guess so.”
Asher slips into the shoes, a little on the big side and yet still they manage to pinch his toes. He can run in them, though, and that’s good enough to get him through the house and out onto the front walk just as one of the servants drives the carriage up.
His stepsisters are both aghast. “Where did you get that?” Envy exclaims.
“It’s not fair! Mama, tell him he is not to go!”
“I did the work,” Asher says, breathing a little heavily after the sprint from the woods. “I did everything you asked, I was polite to you, and I found something to wear.” He looks defiantly at his stepmother, who is completely expressionless. “So I get to go.”
“Hmm,” his stepmother says, her voice unusually soft. “I suppose you did follow the letter of the agreement.” She moves forward and reaches a hand out towards his, fingering Ty’s wax silhouette. “But I disapprove of your methods.” Her eyes gleam in the dim light of the setting sun, almost glowing, like the eyes of a cat. “Your father was the same way, you know. He snuck around, taking what he wished, and thought I was none the wiser. I never invited him into my chamber, not once while we were married, and I never invited you in, either. If you had begged me properly, perhaps…but there is too much pride in you for that.” She leans in close, and Asher can smell the dust on her.
“I have lived through more than one generation of this game, you know. I understand the hidden rules. You, cinder boy, must be helped over the threshold of this place if you are to pass to another. I will not help you, and neither will my daughters.” She draws back haughtily. “Let that be a lesson to you for your thieving ways. Into the carriage, girls.”
“No,”Asher breathes. No way. “You have to let me come.”
“Wrong.” The women get into the black lacquer carriage and shut the door. “Drive on!” It begins to move.
“No,”Asher shouts, “no, no! You have to let me come!” He tries to grab for the door but it’s moving too quickly by then, and so he leaps onto the back of the carriage. The old wood groans dangerously beneath his feet, far from secure, but if he just holds on hard enough, if he can make his way around to the door…
The carriage hits the invisible barrier of the property, and Asher iss flung from the back of it onto the gravel path. He falls flat on his back, knocking him breathless, and from the sting against his neck and hands he knows he’ll be picking pieces of rock out of his skin. Not that that matters, because Asher will need something to do, now that the fucking carriage has driven away without him. Ty’s going to be there, at the ball, this is the chance Aasher needed to see him, maybe to break out of whatever is happening here, and Asher blew it. Fuck.
“Fuck!” he screams into the twilight, tears of frustration building in his eyes.
“Finally!”a voice exclaims. Shoes crunch in the gravel and a face suddenly looms over Asher’s. It’s a man…sort of? He has canary yellow hair, bright pink lips and wears way too much eye shadow, and he looks like he’s wearing a…no way…shit, is that a dress? “You couldn’t have just burst into tears earlier like a normal heroine? Cause then we could have avoided all of this falling-onto-the-ground bullshit.”
“Dude,”Asher manages to gasp. “Twinkerbelle.”
The man rolls his eyes. “Oh, perfect. I can see that we’re gonna get along like a house on fire. Time to get up, lazybones, we’ve gotta hustle if you’re getting to that ball on time.”
“Are you serious?” Asher demands.
The guy leans in even closer. “Don’t I look serious to you?”
Great. He’s lost it. Psychotic break, meet la-la land. Asher’s officially gone insane.